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Not a good sign: Lawyers getting involved between NASCAR, new Race Team Alliance

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When the new Race Team Alliance introduced itself to the world July 7, everything seemed like sunny skies and good feelings going forward in the world of NASCAR. Everyone spoke positively, optimistically and seemed to be full of confidence that all — owners, drivers, teams and NASCAR — would benefit.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton said during an impromptu press conference last Friday at New Hampshire that there was no animosity between the sanctioning body and the new upstart ownership group.

“I wanted to dispel the perception of animosity to start with and then back that up with saying we’re going to do business as usual,” Helton said. “I think everybody in the garage area knows how we do our business and the role they play in it, and so we’ll continue to do it that way.”

But less than a week after Helton’s comments, the first salvo of what potentially could become an eventual antagonistic relationship has been fired, and it boils down to what oftentimes is one of the nastiest words in professional sports:

Lawyers.

The amicable original intention of the RTA has now been responded to by International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s sister company, as well as NASCAR itself. Both sibling companies have made it very clear to the RTA that if there is to be any communication between both sides, it will be through attorneys, not man-to-man between RTA boss and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France or second-in-command Helton.

As the old saying goes, can you see where this could potentially go to hell in a handbasket very quickly when lawyers are involved?

Kauffman, at least publicly, doesn’t seem overly concerned, according to an interview with Bob Pockrass of SportingNews.com late Wednesday.

“It’s not an animosity thing, it’s just a formality thing,” Kauffman told Pockrass. “NASCAR is a big company and they’re very sensitive legally. They’ve had experience (with antitrust) and they want to be very formal and correct in the initial stages. … It’s understandable. Hopefully as time goes on and both sides get used to each other a little bit, those barriers (will) tend to go down. I think it will be fine.”

The RTA’s original intention of pooling resources, cutting expenses, etc., is quite noble indeed. Even with countless cost-cutting measures, including large-scale layoffs in recent years, plus teams folding throughout all three primary NASCAR series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – the cost of operating teams remains extremely expensive.

Only 10 years ago, the average team operational budget in Sprint Cup was in the $10 to $15 million per year range – just to competitive.

Today, that number is more in the $20 to $25 million per year range — again, just to be competitive. And when you have multiple teams within an organization, that cost can quickly reach upwards of $100 million for a four-car group like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing and up to $75 million for a three-car operation like Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.

For all the good things NASCAR has done to reduce costs, including the one-engine rule, the interchangeable Car of Tomorrow and its Generation 6 successor, it still costs a lot for team owners to remain in the game.

That’s why it’s not surprising some teams have folded or suspended operations, including at least two Sprint Cup teams this season already.

That’s also why so many sponsors have come and gone over the last six or seven years, and have forced teams to go from having one primary sponsor all season long to a number of different primary sponsors for only a certain numbered block of races per season.

The reason: overall, sponsoring a finite number of races (anywhere from, say, six to 16) is much cheaper and an easier pill to swallow for sponsors, particularly when questioned about return on investment by their shareholders.

And with significant changes likely to come to the sport next season, including a revamped schedule, the possibility of several venue changes within the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as more rules and equipment changes, the nine initial owner members of the RTA are understandably looking out for themselves both individually and collectively.

But with lawyers now involved, the hoped-for amicable relationship gives the appearance that things are already starting to tug at the seams.

Few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass in its one-for-all, all-for-one mantra. It’s not unthinkable that if NASCAR continues to struggle at the box office and in TV ratings, that RTA may try to exert and wield some pretty powerful clout:

  • Like forcing NASCAR to deviate from its “our way or the highway” mindset that has been in place for 65 years.
  • Like forcing NASCAR to give team owners significantly more power, perhaps a prelude to the long-talked about possibility of adding franchising to give owners more of a say in the way the sport operates.
  • And the biggest potential possibility of the RTA: If the owners stay united and take a hard line stance and force the issue, they could eventually demand the power to oust or retain key NASCAR officials, including France and Helton.

That last possibility could also potentially be why both sides are now starting to lawyer up. While the intention is supposed to be amicable and formal, the end result could be something entirely different.

After all, team owners in NASCAR have the least power overall of any other major professional sport. Unlike in other sports, NASCAR team owners don’t have the ability to hire or fire the sanctioning body’s top executives, don’t have voting privileges when it comes to sanctioning body decisions, have no say in what rules can be changed (although owners do have input, NASCAR doesn’t have to listen to them), and have only the limited power that the sanctioning body gives them.

Up to this point, the France family-run and privately-owned business model has worked well. Well, let’s clarify that: it’s worked well up until about 2008, when the economy went south and NASCAR’s fortunes, popularity and TV ratings began to go with it.

But I’m not saying France, Helton and others have been the cause of NASCAR’s downfall in recent years. On the contrary.

France and Helton and those under them have done a good job when faced with some very trying circumstances and situations – certainly circumstances and situations that most other sports leagues have not had to deal with as much.

NASCAR’s top officials have worked diligently to improve safety, control costs as best they can, brought parity to the performance of race cars and trucks while also making the overall racing better, and have worked hard to attract new sponsors and businesses to the sport.

They’ve worked at trying to convince hotel chains and chambers of commerce in various locales that NASCAR visits to not gouge fans for room costs on race weekends, lest that not only hurts the fans, it also hurts the overall sport and the businesses themselves.

They’ve worked to keep the sport viable and relevant. They’ve worked at alternative ways to get the sport’s message across when countless media outlets have all but forgotten coverage of NASCAR events and news. Whereas particularly newspapers used to devote hundreds of column inches to yearly NASCAR coverage in the past, now most of those same papers will run maybe a paragraph or two at best (some even less, giving nothing more than a one-sentence “report” of who won that week’s race).

Sadly, while NASCAR certainly loses in that instance, it’s the fans that lose the most because they’re deprived of the kind of expansive media coverage that helped make them fans in the first place.

While I was optimistic and hopeful that the RTA and NASCAR relationship would be good for the sport, the fact that we will now have third party attorneys doing the “communicating” between both sides is both foreboding and ominous.

We can hope for the best, but right now the best is starting to look quite concerning.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Alexander Rossi’s likeness revealed on Borg-Warner Trophy (PHOTOS)

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All photos: LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner
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One of the hallmarks of the racing offseason is that the Indianapolis 500 winner gets to have his or her face immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Alexander Rossi is the latest addition now, the rookie winner of the 100th running having had his face get added and revealed today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Rossi’s face is actually the 103rd on the trophy, because of two co-drivers that won the race and an additional tribute to Tony Hulman, who bought and saved the Speedway after World War II.

As part of the process, Rossi met with sculptor Will Behrends in September in Tryon, NC, getting his life-size image. That’s then shrunk down as part of a several-step process.

“I think it’s cooler than looking in the mirror for sure! Because as we were talking about it, this kind of reminds me; it’s the first time you see something that’s not reversed,” Rossi said. “And I’m still tripping out about it! I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, but it’s very cool. It’s very special and it’s way more detailed, accurate and amazing than I ever thought it would be.

“What Will was able to do, I mean, it blows my mind that he was able to get this so accurate just from pictures. I am so far from being anywhere close to an artist but you can really appreciate what he’s done and I don’t even know where to begin in how you acquire such an amazing skill set. It’s fantastic that I had the opportunity to work with him for a short period of time and I think that it’s a very special program to be part of.”

Behrends added, “This is of course my 27th year of doing these images on the Borg-Warner Trophy and going to see the race. This one was particularly interesting and exciting because of the way it ended and the winner. It was just a fantastic ending, everyone was on the edge of their seat, and standing up at the end. It was very exciting.”

Photos from the process leading to the reveal are below, with more to come tonight following the conclusion of the event itself.

All photos courtesy LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner:

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Flashback: When Max Chilton gave fiancee ‘terrifying’ ride in race car

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Somehow, we missed this one the first time it came around — but even a few months later, it still bears sharing. And thanks to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for re-posting on its Facebook page not long after the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale in Sonoma, which is where it caught our eye.

Back in late March, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Max Chilton wanted to give new fiancee Chloe Roberts an up close and personal insight into how a race car driver does his thing behind the wheel.

Chilton confirmed today during a Facebook Live video that they’ll get married during the August 2017 break in IndyCar’s schedule, likely between the Mid-Ohio and Pocono race weekends.

Alas, Chilton was at the 74th members meeting of the Goodwood Festival of Speed when he was given the opportunity to hop into an old car of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray’s.

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” Chilton said in a video posted on the Festival’s official Facebook page. “It’s very big, heavy, it’s got similar paths to what I’m used to but it’s like a tank of a race car.

“But it’s perfect for what I’m doing today and hopefully it puts on a good show for everyone.”

That’s when Max got the bright idea to take Chloe for a spin.

“Chloe has never been in a racing car, and so she’s never seen what I get out to,” he said. “This isn’t really what I get out to, but it’ll give her the sensation of noise and smoke and the acceleration and adrenaline of having fun in these cars.”

Roberts approached the chance for a ride along with hesitation and trepidation – even requesting to don a helmet when Max informed her he’d be doing some doughnuts with the car.

Still, Roberts was a good sport and went through with it, even though there was a slight blip in plans early on.

“It’s always reassuring when you don’t know how to start a car,” she chided her boyfriend, who struggled to get the Chevrolet SS going.

The best part of the video was when Chilton decided to do a few burnouts. Let’s just say Roberts’ mouth went agape and her facial expressions were priceless.

When the ride ended, Chloe summed things up in just one word: “Terrifying.”

It’s a good thing Max asked Chloe to marry him a week earlier. If he would have waited until after the ride along, who knows what may have happened, right?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA’s December test entry list features DPi, new Porsche public debuts

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Top photo: Cadillac Racing. Bottom photo: Mazda.
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After private testing has taken place for the two manufacturers who have revealed their Daytona Prototype international (DPi) models, Cadillac and Mazda, both cars’ public debuts will occur at next week’s December 13-14 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at the Daytona International Speedway.

Additionally, the new Porsche 911 RSR is set for its first official public running.

Official names for the DPi cars are the Cadillac DPi-V.R and Mazda RT24-P, respectively, although on this first version of the entry list they’re just labeled as Cadillac DPi and Mazda DPi. The VISIT FLORIDA Racing entry is listed as a Multimatic Riley LMP2.

Those five cars headline the entries for the test, which also features 23 combined GT cars from GT Le Mans and GT Daytona (eight and 15 cars, respectively).

Photo: Porsche
Photo: Porsche

In GTLM, both Corvette C7.Rs, both Ford GTs, both Porsche 911 RSRs (the new model’s anticipated public on-track debut, following Los Angeles Auto Show launch, see above) and a BMW M6 GTLM and Ferrari 488 GTE apiece will test.

GTD sees entries from Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, Ferrari and Acura.

The full list is linked here.

Chilton back for sophomore season with Ganassi

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Max Chilton of England driver of the #8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Max Chilton will return to the Verizon IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams for 2017, into a second season.

The 25-year-old Englishman finished 19th in this year’s standings with a best finish of seventh at Phoenix in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The team switches to Honda next season.

“I think we were able to build a solid foundation in my rookie year in the Verizon IndyCar Series with the support of Gallagher and the team,” Chilton said in a release.

“The learning curve is very steep here, and the field is separated by just a few seconds from top to bottom with really talented teams and drivers, which makes the competition incredibly close.

“Having a year of experience now to adapt to the car and learn all of the courses on the schedule is huge for us. Chip and Gallagher give us everything we need to be competitive and go out to contend for wins, so I’m optimistic for the direction of the No. 8 Gallagher team heading into next season.”

There were moments where it looked like Chilton had the potential for greater results but a mix of bad luck and occasional tough qualifying efforts left him playing catchup over the course of the weekend.

Chilton spent the entire 2013 and most of 2014 in Formula 1 before heading Stateside in 2015, when he competed in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and finished fifth in points racing for Carlin. His win on the Iowa Speedway oval opened doors for his graduation into IndyCar last year.